The Pequod Review:
The Right Stuff is one of Tom Wolfe's most underrated books — and maybe even his best — a work of narrative non-fiction that explores the domestic lives and personal motivations of key members of the 1960s and 1970s US space team. Wolfe's research began when he was assigned by Rolling Stone to cover the 1972 Apollo 17 moon launch and wrote an article on a form of depression common to astronauts after completing space missions ("Post-Orbital Remorse"). Wolfe found the stories of these astronauts so compelling that he decided to expand his work to profile their psychologies more broadly: “I discovered quickly enough that none of them, no matter how talkative otherwise, was about to answer the question, or even linger for more than a few seconds on the subject at the heart of it, which is to say, courage.”
The book that emerged contains remarkably rich character studies of so many people — Chuck Yeager (a highly-respected test pilot who was the first to break the sound barrier, but was not chosen to be an astronaut), Gus Grissom (a Mercury 7 astronaut who died in a harrowing accident) and especially John Glenn (who is portrayed, warts and all, as among the most honorable of men). And Wolfe has a real appreciation for the wives back home who fretted and worried while receiving none of the adrenaline rush and little of the public glory, to say nothing of the high risk of becoming widowed:
When the final news came, there would be a ring at the door — a wife in this situation finds herself staring at the front door as if she no longer owns it or controls it — and outside the door would be a man... come to inform her that unfortunately something has happened out there, and her husband’s body now lies incinerated in the swamps or the pines or the palmetto grass, “burned beyond recognition”, which anyone who has been around an air base for very long realized was an artful euphemism to describe a human body that now looked like an enormous fowl that has burned up in a stove, burned a blackish brown all over, greasy and blistered, fried, in a word, with not only the entire face and all the hair and the ears burned off, not to mention all the clothing, but also the hands and feet, with what remains of the arms and legs bent at the knees and elbows and burned into absolutely rigid angles, burned a greasy blackish brown like the bursting body itself, so that this husband, father, officer, gentleman, this ornamentum of some mother’s eye, His Majesty the Baby of just 20-odd years back, has been reduced to a charred hulk with wings and shanks sticking out of it.
Tom Wolfe's fiction often suffered from exaggerated characters and far-fetched scenes. But with The Right Stuff he was constrained by real life, and as a result he produced the most convincing characters of his entire career. Highly recommended.